November: it’s not my favorite month. As a person who has, in some people’s eyes, an unreasonable appreciation for all things outdoors, this is saying a lot. Despite all of November’s shortfalls, over the past few years I have figured out something that I can appreciate about this time of year: river otters.
Frost can certainly skate fairy-like across our glass windows but can also drill its way like thousands of microscopic daggers into the fragile bodies of unprotected insects, breaching cell membranes as it goes.
Hackmatacks are a coniferous needle-bearing tree that, from a quick glance, can blend in with the rest of its pokey kin in our northern forest. A closer look and feel, however, reveals that the stems are dotted with feathery crowns of soft needles that sit atop short spurs on the fine twigs of the tree. But kinship with its coniferous comrades ends here.
Late October is the peak of beaver activity. Busily they work to put on the final layers of mud and sticks to their lodges and to fill their larders full of fresh branches and twigs to ensure they are warm, secure, and well fed for the long winter ahead of them. All this work must be done before the rivers, ponds, and streams freeze over and lock the beavers into a winter of either swimming in the water beneath the ice or snoozing in their lodges.
Growing along the sprawling branches of this shrub that can grow up to fifteen feet tall are small flowers with thin, crinkly petals reminiscent of one-inch strips of yellow tinsel arranged haphazardly around a center point—as if a spider were frozen mid-gallop, legs splayed in every direction in an effort to move fast despite an excess of legs. Its blooming time coinciding with Halloween and its spider-like yellow flowers make “witch hazel” an appropriate name for this unique plant.
I once heard someone say, “my favorite color is October.” Here in New England, that attitude is quite understandable this time of year. The color palette of October can be a sight to see, but concealed under all that color is the thick, brown, spongy, and delicious flesh of an often-missed mushroom: the birch bolete.
Cranberries are a perfectly accurate representation of a New Englander. Rather crunchy, quite sour, and perhaps even a bit bitter at times. But if you take the time to get to know them—perhaps in the good company of a bit of maple syrup and some time by a woodstove—they will easily win you over! And so here I am, a New Englander through and through, out in my iconic shin-high rubber-footed leather boots kneeling in my canoe and meandering lazily from low island to low island across a stunning autumn lake in pursuit of a perfectly New England berry.
Beech trees can be readily identified by their smooth gray bark. I recall the many hikes I went on with my parents as a young child and how my mom would teach me my trees. She would always tell me that the trunks of beech trees looked like elephants legs. When I came upon a great beech tree, I would place my hand on its smooth bark and imagine that the forest would transform into a wandering herd of docile elephants when no one was around. The husks of the beech nuts, however, are anything but smooth. Instead, the small nuts are covered in a husk with countless soft hooked spines.
An unusual plant caught my eye as it climbed, twined, and draped across the rough forest edge while dangling its kiwi-sized fruits covered in weak spines. I cut a sample and brought it to my professor’s office. “What’s this?” I asked while tossing the cut specimen limply upon her desk. I’m not sure if her answer was truthfully ignorant or if she was feigning naïveté to encourage my own self-discovered learning, but with an air of certainty she said, “I have no idea, but it is certainly a cucurbit!”